The idea has great curb appeal: Give your old car to a charity, take a tax deduction, and raise money for a good cause -- perhaps even help train poor people in a marketable trade.
The radio is abuzz with such ads, and many taxpayers are signing up.
But while giving your car to a bona fide charity is a legitimate deduction, experts say you should be very careful about the amount you write off.
The temptation is great to be aggressive in assigning a value to the old buggy, and some charities seem to encourage that. One ad that aired recently in the Washington area offers a receipt for whatever amount you think the car is worth.
That's asking for trouble, said Arthur Auerbach, an accountant based in Vienna.
The Internal Revenue Service, "because of the ads that are running all over the place, has told people in . . . meetings that this is a high-audit issue, an issue they are going to be looking for," Auerbach said.
Of course, the IRS may be bluffing. Congress in the past several years has made clear its distaste for actual enforcement of the tax laws it enacts. It has cut the agency's budget for revenue agents, in-person audits and other cop-on-the-beat activities.
But if you've got a car or other vehicle you'd really like to donate and you'd prefer not to play the audit lottery, experts advise taking steps to justify any deduction you take.
First, as my colleague Michelle Singletary explained in her column two weeks ago, make sure the charity you're dealing with is for real. Bogus charities or those that don't operate their programs properly can get themselves -- and you -- into trouble.
Next, understand that the deductible amount is the fair market value, which is what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller in an arm's-length transaction. This may or may not be the value listed in such sources as the Kelley Blue Book and the National Automobile Dealers Association used-car guide. The values in those guides are generalizations, and your car could be a lot nicer, or a lot crummier, than the book assumes.